Notes from ‘Doors to another world: chapels in Medieval England’, by Prof. Nicholas Orme, 3/10/2013 (Wessex Centre for History and Archaeology, Hampshire Record Office)

These are some of the notes from the second session of the Wessex seminars this year, to which Alex and I attended to, at the Hampshire Record Office. The general theme of the seminar was medieval chapels in England (particularly Cornwall), and their uses:

-Small chapels located in remote places (increasing due to Black Death). Not all the chapels may have been official or run by the clergy: some for individual prayers, penance, intercession…From the laity for the laity. Although, some of these chapels evolved ino parish churches

-Many bridges in England had chapels-London Bridge. Other locations such as ferry crossing points share this feature.

-Certain cult of saints would have chapels in favoured locations: St.Michael and chapels on hills.

-Many small off shore islands had chapels or similar religious settlements.

-Chapels & boundaries: chapels as markers of legal/social area of churches and parishioners. Rogation type processions often visited boundary chapels. Nomanschapel: example of chapel equidistant from 4 different parish boundaries. Chapels are not only geographical but psychological boundaries?Examples in french literature; promoting chapels as mysterious places, like in the prose of Lancelot. Another example in Gawain and the Green Knight, where several chapels are mentioned: the one in King Arthur palace, as well as the Green chapel (with holes in it, and a sinister feeling around it). Reasons behind this fictional movement? Supposedly chapels would provide more fictional freedom than monasteries or churches as people knew how they were structured and how they functioned.

-Deliverate location of chapels on rocky and mountainous places? Perhaps a way of bringing Christianity into the wild. Other arguments: to cater for hermits and/or for pilgrims trying to avoid the main roads in their voyages.

-The case of Guyes Cliffe (near Warwick): he was ancestor of the earls of Warwick, a crusader that ended his life as a hermit. Centre dedicated to him: almost like a medieval theme-park! It included monuments to Guy, as well as a chapel devoted to his cult.

-Lollard gatherings at St.John Leicester in an abandoned chapel. Other Lollards known for preaching in deserted chapels.

-Use of chapels presumably similar across other parts of medieval Europe?

-Conclusion:chapels were very adaptable to the end use and needs of their patrons and benefactors: they could be close or open, private or public. They could be used to keep altars that had been replaced in the main churches by new late medieval saints, to support a particular cult, or to cater for a group of people wishing to worship together. During the Reformation the use of chapels went into decline. Many were profaned or fell in disuse, even turned into barns in some cases. Crammer and his ecclesiastical legislations were responsible for this, as it was his and that fo the King’s desire hat people would only worship at their parish churches. However, and despite the destruction of many of these buildings some still have a presence in the English landscape: they stand as signs of a religious past that was actively destroyed and didn’t want to be seen.

-As a final and very interesting note, it is worth mentioning that Prof. Orme states that non-conformist chapels share similarities with their medieval predecessors.


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